In a special meeting on Sept. 9, the Faculty Senate voted on two resolutions to grant instructors the ability to move their courses online. They both passed on Sept. 10, and now await approval from President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff.
Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations, president of Cornell’s American Association of University Professors Chapter, spoke on the importance of these resolutions at the Sept. 9 meeting.
“They call for logical and fair actions based on three principles: safety, transparency and consultation,” she said at the meeting.
The vote follows weeks of controversy over the University’s classroom accommodation policies, which emphasized in-person teaching over other concerns. On Aug. 11, Cornell announced that it would deny faculty requests for remote teaching based on disability. Two days later the University walked that decision back, allowing deans and unit leaders to grant accommodations at their own discretion.
On Aug. 29, 117 faculty members and the Cornell Chapter of the American Association of University Professors each submitted a letter to the University. The faculty letter requested an expansion of online teaching accommodations and stated community safety concerns with an in-person semester. The AAUP letter outlined the legal challenges to Cornell’s policy at the time, which it stated stood in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law.
The Faculty Senate did not originally plan to meet until Sept. 22, but it convened early to vote on the resolutions that senators introduced on Sept. 8. Each resolution received backing from over 64 faculty member cosponsors, 9 faculty senators and the Cornell Chapter of the AAUP.
Senators titled the first resolution as the “Resolution on Adopting Policies for Reasonable Accommodations to Faculty, Instructors, Staff and Students During the Pandemic.” It passed with 65 votes to 21.
“This resolution concerns University policies to provide reasonable accommodations during the pandemic,” the resolution’s introduction read. “University policies should be developed based on the principles of safety, transparency, and consultation to respond to faculty, instructor, staff and student needs for a safe and healthy teaching, learning, and working environment.”
The first resolution criticizes the Aug. 11 and 13 University policies, stating that they caused anxiety for the Cornell community, violated the ADA and the New York State Human Rights Law and failed to meet ethical obligations to the Cornell community. It calls on Cornell to adopt broad, flexible policies, using consistent standards and good faith consultation with the Faculty Senate and other bodies of governance.
The second resolution, called the “Resolution on Faculty Discretion to Teach Online If Students Are Infected or Where Classroom Conditions Make Social Distancing Impossible,” addresses classroom modality more directly than the first. It passed 51 votes to 34.
“When the administration isn’t making the best decisions for the institution,” Irene Mulvey, national AAUP president, wrote in a statement included in the resolution. “It’s the faculty’s responsibility to stand up, speak out and do all they can to ensure that the core academic mission is carried out in the most effective way for the circumstances.”
The resolution states that instructors are responsible for the quality of their instruction, and the University has outlined several ways to reduce transmission, including social distancing and meeting only in small groups, that are impossible to carry out in many classrooms.
It also notes that instructors don’t always receive notice of students who test positive. It emphasizes that Cornell’s instructors are eager to teach in person, but they all teach differently and should therefore control their teaching environments. It demands that the University give instructors sole discretion over their classrooms.
The meeting took place over Zoom. Faculty senators and research-teaching-extension faculty, including visiting and senior faculty, attended as the eligible voting body. Prof. Neema Kudva, city and regional planning, associate dean of faculty, facilitated the meeting’s presentations and discussion periods.
President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff attended before the deliberations started. Pollack spoke briefly on the University’s dedication to safety and quality education.
“[Our goals] are to provide our students with the best possible educational experience we can, consistent with protecting the health of our community or residential University,” Pollack said at the meeting. “When the public health situation permits it, we are committed to providing our students with a residential experience.”
She said the University is committed to providing reasonable medical accommodations, but she noted that Cornell is a “residential university” that requires many faculty and staff to conduct essential functions on campus.
“We have to make these decisions balancing the needs of all the stakeholders,” she said.
After Pollack’s statement, Lieberwitz presented the first resolution. She noted the importance of transparent policymaking on the University’s part and stated that the faculty wants a fulfilling but safe learning environment.
“We would all like to be back in the classroom teaching,” she said. “But obviously, this is not a normal time, and classrooms are not normal places.”
Next, Prof. Richard Bensel, government, spoke on the second resolution. He presented the University’s lack of communication with the faculty thus far, especially when it comes to COVID-19 spread in the Cornell community.
“There’s no detailed information,” he said at the meeting. “We don’t know how many faculty are sick. When we’re told that there are clusters, there’s no network analysis of the transmission. There is nothing that we were told; all this information is being collected and used to make general policy, but we don’t know what it is.”
To finish out the meeting, Kudva facilitated a ten-minute audience discussion period on the second resolution and a 35 minute forum for general discussion. Faculty cast their votes through Qualtrics after the meeting ended, and the results were announced at 5 p.m. the next day.